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Opinion Incarcerated Pennsylvanians now have to pay $150 to read. We should all be outraged.

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Jodi Lincoln is co-chair of Book ’Em, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that sends free reading material to incarcerated people and prison libraries.

Every year, thousands of people in Pennsylvania prisons write directly to nonprofit organizations such as the one I co-chair with a request for reading material, which we then send to them at no cost. This free access to books has dramatically improved the lives of incarcerated individuals, offering immense emotional and mental relief as well as a key source of rehabilitation.

But as of last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has decided to make such rehabilitation much harder. Going forward, books and publications, including legal primers and prison newsletters, cannot be sent directly to incarcerated Pennsylvanians. Instead, if they want access to a book, they must first come up with $147 to purchase a tablet and then pay a private company for electronic versions of their reading material — but only if it’s available among the 8,500 titles offered to them through this new e-book system.

In case you forgot: Incarcerated people are paid less than $1 per hour, and the criminal-justice system disproportionately locks up low-income individuals. Adding insult to injury, most of the e-books available to them for purchase would be available free from Project Gutenberg. And nonpublic domain books in Pennsylvania’s e-book system are more expensive than on other e-book markets.

This policy, part of a larger trend of censorship in state prisons around the country, should alarm everyone. Not only does it erect a huge financial barrier to books and severely restrict content, it also dehumanizes people in prison. 

The changes in Pennsylvania follow an unprecedented lockdown in the state’s correctional facilities during last month’s national prison strike. The Pennsylvania DOC argues that these new policies are necessary to prevent contraband drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids such as K2 from entering prisons after a string of incidents in August involving staff reportedly being exposed to contraband substances. 

But this argument doesn’t hold up. Based on the DOC’s incident report, out of the 60 staff members exposed to unknown substances, only six tested positive for drugs. The DOC has also published examples of contraband drugs they have intercepted, none of which came from free book organizations. It is, of course, important to protect staff and inmates from exposure to drugs, but the DOC is purposefully exaggerating the risk to push their draconian policies. The DOC should instead focus on real security risks and addiction treatment, not further collective punishment. 

In addition to the financial barriers, this policy also severely damages an incarcerated person’s ability to fully reenter society. Not only do organizations such as mine provide education material such as GED and SAT study books, textbooks, nonfiction books and business and trade books, but many organizations also send individualized workbooks designed for self-improvement or focused on the needs of minority populations such as LGBTQ inmates. The list of available e-books is missing some of the most requested books, including dictionaries, textbooks, graphic novels and books focused on incarceration issues such as “The New Jim Crow” and “Illegal to Legal.”

By using their time in prison to prepare for reentry into society, incarcerated people have a greater chance at living a productive life and their time in prison is enhanced through reading as a form of self-improvement. Books-to-prison organizations also offer inmates connections with the outside world, as people request books over and over again, often sending personal updates, drawings and sharing their stories. These connections cannot be replicated by e-books or ordering a specific book through the DOC.

Perhaps more alarming is that the head of the Pennsylvania DOC, Secretary John Wetzel, is president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. If Pennsylvania’s policies remain in place, other states are sure to follow suit. Increasing literacy and education should be an essential part of the correctional apparatus, but by imposing financial barriers to accessing books and restricting content, Pennsylvania is failing to serve the greater good.

Read more:

Nila Bala: There’s a war on books in prisons. It needs to end.

Ann E. Marimow: In a reversal, Md. prison officials lift limits on access to books for inmates

Ann E. Marimow: Federal prisons abruptly cancel policy that made it harder, costlier for inmates to get books

Michael Gerson: No more pits of despair. Offenders are still humans.

Eugene Robinson: In prison reform, a little of something is better than a lot of nothing